All the Way from Memphis

Review of Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse

Memphis, the Tony-winning musical by Joe DiPietro, Book and Lyrics, and David Bryan, Music and Lyrics, closes its run at Ivoryton Playhouse tonight. The show, a spirited crowd-pleaser, finds at Ivoryton an intimate showcase for its story of interracial relations surrounding the rise of black R&B—known, in the white music business of the 1950s, as “race music”—into a cultural force that eventually gave birth to rock’n’roll. Key to R&B making it across the racial divide were disc jockeys like real-life Dewey Phillips who first played black music for white audiences in Memphis. Inspired by Phillips, Memphis dramatizes the struggle to desegregate the radio as a key element in the effort to desegregate our country. In that sense, it’s a show with a vivid historical sense of how popular music could be a force for change.

One of the best things about DiPietro’s book is that it finds in the story of Huey (the character based on Phillips) drama enough to sustain the show, though at first that might seem a shaky proposition. There’s enough interest and tension, for one act, in watching Huey (Carson Higgins) defy his bosses—first at a record store and then at a radio station—while riding high on giving the people what they want. And, at the same time, courting and hoping to promote Felicia (Renée Jackson), a stunning singer he hears—and falls for—at the club owned by her brother, Delray (Teren Carter), where whites are decidedly not welcome. Songs like “Underground,” “Scratch My Itch,” and “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” celebrate the life force of the music Huey also loves—as he attests in “The Music of My Soul.”

 Renee Jackson as Felicia

Renee Jackson as Felicia

Meanwhile the “rights” to the music—as a racial and not simply a cultural heritage—gets disputed hand-in-glove with the question of whether or not love can cross racial boundaries, with Felicia’s soulful “Colored Woman” and Delray’s electric “She’s My Sister” insisting—in the face of Huey’s often naïve indifference—that race is always a factor in the lives of African Americans. These themes come to a dramatic crest at the end of Act One when, after an act of violence shocks Huey into reality, Gator, a formerly mute bartender, steps up to sing “Say a Prayer,” a song with a strong sense of how gospel music was the basis for the heart found in R&B. But where can the show go from there?

Much depends on Huey expanding beyond the "hock-a-dooing" huckster of the first act. Carson Higgins inhabits the role with the kind of natural sure-footedness that makes even Huey’s less likeable aspects fully engaging. So, as he rides to success in Memphis, Huey must also deal with Felicia’s ambitions, which stretch beyond the Jim Crow South, her eyes on New York. Huey, in other words, has to face the fact that his love—whom he would like to marry—may be a bigger sensation than he is. While this takes us into A Star is Born territory, it does make Act Two an emotional struggle for Huey, and Higgins, with director Todd L. Underwood, is able to find the heart of this shifting, self-satisfied showman. His big song in Act Two, “Memphis Lives in Me” feels heartfelt and earned because we see what the town has done for him and to him and how much it has meant to him and cost him.

 Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Along the way, there are many powerfully charged moments, in part because the show is so well-cast, with fully developed turns from Teren Carter as Delray, Melodie Wolford as Gladys, Huey’s mother, Beau Allen as Huey’s canny boss, and David Robbins as Bobby, a worker at the radio station and regular at Delray’s club who gets his moment of fame singing “Big Love” on Huey’s local TV show. These supporting parts lend the show much of its cred, and, in its key role, Renée Jackson gives Felicia a palpable hunger and sadness that help to sustain the meaning of the “blues” in R&B. Otherwise, we might think “race music” is all about having a good time. What even Huey can’t register is the degree of suffering the music acts as counter to, for its singers and makers and dancers. Jackson lets us feel what the structure of the show only suggests.

For, in the end, this is still Huey’s story. He, like many a hero, goes too far and grabs for a do-or-die moment that cooler heads would steer him from, and ends up with far less than he hoped. DiPietro does well to pull back from the happy-go-lucky happy-ever-after, that Huey would wish for himself, to take a sadder but wiser look at the time’s realities. Music may inspire us and bring us together, but—when it comes to recording and commercial radio—it’s a business first and foremost.

Underwood also choreographs the show and compresses the musical’s incredible energy onto the Ivoryton’s modest stage with great finesse. The dances seem to spring from the songs themselves without any labored sense of “dance routine,” and the big ensemble songs keep the energy level high throughout, with musical director Michael Morris conducting his orchestra from the piano, all situated as cool, shadowy figures behind a tasteful scrim. With no bad seat in the house, a show like Memphis—which can be seen in bigger houses on Broadway—demonstrates the full value of touring shows. The audience has full access to the power of the show, as every seat is “orchestra.”

Racial tensions, as DiPietro knows, were becoming more strident at that time in the South because it was becoming possible to challenge them. A key moment in that story comes when Huey’s mother (the excellent Melodie Wolford) has to overcome her deep-seated fear about her son’s interracial love, a fear mirrored in the resentment Delray (the excellent Teren Carter), feels for Huey. Such detentes are part of the complex story of how age-old systems can find challenge and courage in something new—at a time when, as Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby, and they called that baby rock’n’roll.”

 

Memphis
Books and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W. George
Orchestrations by Daryl Waters and David Bryan
Directed and Choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Costume/Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Stage Manager: Phill Madore

Orchestra: Michael Morris, conductor, piano; Andrew Studenski, alto sax, flute; Alan Wasserman: tenor sax, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Seth Bailey, trumpet; Matthew Russo, trombone; Luke McGinnis, keyboards; Dan Hartington, guitar; David Uhl, bass; Adam Holtzberg, drums; Elliot Wallace, drums

Cast: Beau Allen, Erik Bloomquist, Teren Carter, Roderick Cotton, Tiffani Davis, Taavon Gamble, Matthew Gregory, Carson Higgins, Renée Jackson, Amanda Leigh Lupacchino, Melissa McLean, Kevin Moeti, David Robbins, Jenna Rapisarda, Mya Rose, Tim Russell, Jamal Shuriah, Michael Sullivan, Garrett Turner, Chawnta’ Marie Van, Melodie Wolford

Ivoryton Playhouse
August 5-August 30, 2015